Sermon - Acts 11:19-30
Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. 20 But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. 22 The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, 24 for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord. 25 So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.
27 Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius). 29 So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. 30 And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.
In our Gospel lesson this morning, we have the Samaritan’s loving service toward a man in need. Lutheran theologians tend to see Christ in that man who helped someone for whom there was otherwise no hope, rescuing him, paying the price to restore him to health, pledging to provide everything that could be needed. Isn’t it what we confess in the meaning of the Second Article of the Creed: …that [Christ] has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature; purchased and won me from all sin, from death, and from the power of the devil - not with gold or silver, but with His holy precious blood, and with His innocent suffering and death. In this sermon text we have a similar example of loving service toward people in need - the so-called brothers living in Judea who will be suffering in the midst of a great famine. We might say the phenomenon of this loving service is what we want to talk about today.
The primary nature of the apostles’ work exemplifies loving service: spreading the message of forgiveness and eternal life in the Christ, Who died for all. That’s a generous, loving message. To go out with that message in the interest of telling it to people is loving service. The apostles have been scattered after the death of Stephen (and the subsequent persecution that has arisen toward believers in Christ). They have gone various places. Some have gone to Antioch - a place with half a million people, the third largest city in the Roman Empire behind Rome and Alexandria. The hand of the Lord was with them, Luke says, as they spoke the Gospel to various sorts of Jews and Gentiles. And, Luke says, a great number who believed turned to the Lord.
At the time being discussed in our text, the Jerusalem church has gotten word of God’s grace being poured in Antioch. They have sent Barnabas there. He sees firsthand the grace of God - all of these new believers in Christ! He encourages them to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose. He goes and gets Saul at Tarsus, and brings him to Antioch, where the two stay for a whole year, providing that loving service of teaching a great many people about Jesus.
While they’re there, Luke reports, prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. Through one named Agabus, the Spirit foretells a famine to come over all the populated world. People will be suffering. They become aware somehow that specific believers in Judea will be in a position to benefit from help that it is within their means to provide at this time.
It’s good to have an opportunity this morning to talk about one of the things that a Christian naturally is: a loving servant to his neighbor. Martin Luther talked about this many times. One of the things he said was this: “God requires no good works from us for Himself; He wants everything to yield to the use and welfare of our neighbor. The glory of such works is enough for God…” He goes on to remind that we are justified by faith (we can’t do anything to save ourselves). What is God-pleasing for us to do then (knowing this and rejoicing in it), is to make God’s grace in Christ known to others through the Gospel, and then, he says, let us show mercy to our neighbor” (AE 18:261). He might have in mind with a statement like this, what it says in Micah 6:8: He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
Jesus’ lesson for the lawyer in our Gospel text, about loving his neighbor finally teaches him and us what we haven’t done in this regard, right? Who of us hasn’t been too lazy, or too scared, or even too hateful to provide the loving service that our neighbor needed in a certain time? Who of us hasn’t decided that our neighbor didn’t deserve our help? Who of us hasn’t excluded certain people from those we are willing to consider to be our neighbor? When we have done this, we have sidestepped something that is specifically Christian - loving our neighbor, and have comported ourselves more like those who are not Christians. Were we to determine that this is the way we should go on living, we would be denying our Lord altogether. Those who are His are like Him. The Spirit works in them to make it so. We can’t be believers, but live like unbelievers. If this were your desire, it would be best for you, right now, to take these words as a stern warning. Hell is what waits for those who have decided to separate themselves from God’s mercy in Christ.
But if these words have reminded you of your weakness that you despise in yourself, of your sinful nature that causes you to fail to do what you want to do, as St. Paul talks about, then turn to the One pictured in our Gospel lesson. Turn to the One Who has mercy on the helpless. Turn to the One Whose very blood was given over to pay the price for your eternal care. You have forgiveness with Him, for every sin. He’s the One Who loved and served perfectly in your place. He came for the purpose of providing this forgiveness to you. He accomplished it at the cross. He rose from death as the One Who makes you rise from death.
We mentioned the phenomenon of loving service among those who belong to Christ. When we see Jesus in the Good Samaritan, we see what He is, don’t we? We see, that loving service is His m.o., as they say. It’s what He does because He’s Him. There is a passage in which St. Paul says, if we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself (2 Timothy 2:13). He is (and has to be) what He is, Paul is saying. In the same way we can apply this concept of loving service when it comes to Him. This is characteristic of Him. He engages in loving service. Period.
Those who are His do too. It happens at the end of our text. The apostles have been working in Antioch - preaching, teaching, gathering a Christian congregation (we’re told it’s here that believers first started to be known by that term: Christians). They receive news from Judea that stirs their hearts. People are suffering; they need help. What do Christ’s people do with that information? What do those who are followers of the One pictured in our Gospel lesson do in their own situations of seeing people in need - the ones God has provided to them in their vocations? They act like the One they follow, right? Martin Luther once said, "Surely we are named after Christ, not because he is absent from us, but because he dwells in us, that is, because we believe in him and are Christs one to another and do to our neighbors as Christ does to us.” (From The Freedom of a Christian -1520, I think…)
So, Luke writes, the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. 30 And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul. They are Christs to their neighbors. Out of pure joy at what they’ve received from Him, they become His blessing to others in this world who are in need.
What an opportunity you and I have to see ourselves in this same way. We began the year with a three-part program called “Everyone Together”. For one thing, it was about everyone growing spiritually (we’re promoting a new Bible class on Romans starting two weeks from now on the 12th of September; why not add yourself to the group of those in this congregation who are growing in this way?). The program is also about everyone praying together (we’ll be revising our prayer booklet shortly, that gets specific in thanking God for His blessings, and asking Him to provide our needs, and for those of our synod, and even for our fellow believers in other parts of the world).
The third part, we’re just going to begin now: Everyone reaching out. I’ve heard of examples lately of things like this that are already happening. A couple of you - separately - took it upon yourselves to go and visit one of our shut-in members. I know that it brought joy to that person; and I know that it also brought you joy. What a great thing that you reached out in this way because of your love in Christ. And, of course there are many examples of this kind of thing that happens among us. We’ll be talking about more ways in which we can all be together in this God-pleasing effort of reaching out in love to one another and to our community. We have the same motivation that they had: God so loved us that He arranged for our corruption to be covered over with the righteousness of His own Son. He sees us through that Son’s perfection now. And the world sees His grace as it flows out of us to our neighbor in loving service. God be praised. Amen.
Gospel Lesson - Luke 10:23-37
Then turning to the disciples [Jesus] said privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”
And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.”